May Day 2012 in Trafalgar Square, London.
Speakers on May Day 2012 in Trafalgar Square, London. Image: Jaggers, Flickr.

The rise of consumerism over the past century shows the overwhelming power of capital. Not content with determining our ability to meet basic needs of food, housing, and health, consumerism allows capital to shape our self-identity, ideology and personal preferences. Our consumer choices – the products we buy – shape how others see us and how we see ourselves. Advertising and branding seek to ensure that our consumer choices are not defined solely by the utility of the product, but by the lifestyle, identity and status that is associated with it.

Increasingly politics is also understood, by those throughout the political spectrum, through a framework of consumerism’. ‘Political consumerism’ sees politics as a transactional relationship between producers – the political parties – and consumers – the voters. Parties produce – sometimes ‘in house’ and sometimes outsourced to think-tanks and PR firms – a policy package which they ‘sell’ alongside the party’s brand identity.

Everyone else is a mere consumer.

Voters make individual choices on which party’s manifesto to support, basing their decision on their individual self-interest, and the brand identity with which they are most comfortable. These factors also determine whether a voter is willing to go a step further and commit time or money to their favoured party or candidate.

Political consumerism disempowers us and preserves the status quo

The central problem with the consumerist framework is that politics happens elsewhere. We are not political agents: even the most active party members are just supporters of politicians and potential politicians.  As consumers we may have a choice between Mars and Snickers, but we have no control over how each is made. Politics is not, and should not be, the same. However, this framework becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more we talk about politics as a series of consumer choices, the weaker our collective power becomes.

Political consumerism is disempowering – the complexity of our ideas is condensed into a binary choice: support or boycott each party or individual.  This conceals the real power that ordinary people have and convinces us that the programs on offer are out of our control.

It is also individualistic – it encourages us to act in our individual short term self-interest, either in terms of narrow material considerations or with regard to broader self-actualisation of identity.

Finally, it makes us naïve – by ignoring the broader policy-making process we are forced to take manifestos at face-value, unable to distinguish credible promises, or alternatively simply ‘stick with what you know’ and vote uncritically for the party that you always have.

Collectivist politics

The alternative to political consumerism is a focus on groups – or collectives – who have shared material interests and a shared identity borne out of them. These collectives have power – in various forms such as economic, political and cultural etc – that exists separately to the party-political system.

Political parties draw support and membership from one or more of these groupings. For instance the Labour Party includes public or third sector workers, ethnic minorities, and the metropolitan ‘liberal elite’. The Conservatives comprise aristocracy, big business, farmers and rural communities.

Manifestos are not however mere reflections of these collective interests. They are formed on the basis of a negotiation between the interests of the groups which have the most power to shape the party. This includes those inside and outside their membership and supporter base. Inevitably, given that power in contemporary society is heavily aligned with capital ownership and the organisations aligned with capital, this means a rightwards external pressure.

If a group feels that it is not being listened to, or that its interests are not being addressed, it may stop identifying with the party. Eventually this can lead to the group shifting allegiance to another party, or giving up on party politics altogether.

A framework based on power makes situations clear, whereas political consumerism tends towards political confusion

A good example of the weakness of political consumerism is New Labour. Through this framework New Labour was a clear strategy for success. It abandoned the party’s traditional opposition to sections of Tory ideology –privatisation, marketisation, acceptance of inequality – and merged these with the more popular parts of Labour ideology, for instance investment in public services. As a political product, the New Labour package offered the most popular parts of traditional Labour and Tory. At first glance this seems to have worked: New Labour won three elections afterall.

But a closer look at Labour’s vote-share tells a different story. In 1997 31% of the electorate voted Labour, by 2010 this had plummeted to 19%. Even in 2001 and 2005, elections which Labour won, a lower proportion of registered voters voted Labour than in 1992 and 1987 respectively.

Clearly there are many causes which contributed to this decline. However, political consumerism makes these harder, not easier, to identify. Short term electoralism, the logical consequence of political consumerism, was prioritised over maintaining a relationship with the groups that Labour represented. Diane Abbott, a member of the party’s ruling National Executive Committee during the Blair years, explains: “Whenever you mentioned core Labour voters you were dismissed. New Labour bigwigs insisted that those voters “had nowhere else to go”. Well now they are finding somewhere else to go: the SNP in Scotland, the Greens and Ukip”.

The alternative

Politics is about power yet political consumerism, as a framework, ignores its distribution. Moving from political consumerism to collectivist politics entails a change of emphasis. Instead of asking which policies, or political products, we most support, instead we should ask ourselves five questions about interests and power:

  • With whom do we share our interests?
  • How can we build the power of this collective?
  • What social changes do we want to see?
  • How can this social change be achieved?

How do the political parties relate to our interests, our power and social change?

The answers to these questions will lead people to a range of different parties. It may even lead people of a very similar political outlook to different parties. But at least we will be trying to build power for ordinary people, instead of starting from a position of powerlessness.